Interview: Richard Parry

The new head of the Canal and River Trust, which became a charity last year, says it is already attracting more trust income and volunteers

Richard Parry
Richard Parry

Richard Parry, the new chief executive of the Canal and River Trust, is optimistic about what his new charity can achieve.

Parry took over at the trust three months ago, replacing Robin Evans, who led the transformation of the trust from the quango British Waterways into one of the largest charities in the UK.

Parry, a former managing director of London Underground, says much of his previous experience was relevant to the new job. "I'd worked on infrastructure, heritage, commercial development and stakeholder engagement," he says.

He is focused on making the waterways fit for use and building the community of people who use them. He sees the first objective as challenging but manageable. The trust emerged from government with an agreement that gives it control of the canals in perpetuity unless it suffers a significant failure. It also received what Parry calls a "relatively generous" settlement - £800m over 15 years.

Even so, there is less money than he would like: the charity is receiving just over half of what the government was spending about six years ago.

"We've got to start with keeping the water in the canals," he says. "The river network must be navigable, reliable and resilient. Canals are difficult to maintain: they're an old infrastructure."

But as well as being maintained, the network must be used. "We're a people-based charity and we have to make the canals attractive to people," he says. "We already have 10 million-plus visitors each year, and almost all of them come for free."

He says a new governance structure, including a council of users, has created a "more inclusive atmosphere" for all canal users.

"We're listening harder," he says. "This isn't an organisation that thinks it knows best and is led from the centre. We respond to what our users want."

Relationships with other waterways organisations have also improved, and the trust is forging closer links with other charities, he says. He believes staff - many of whom were initially suspicious of the move - are now coming on side. Many, he says, enjoy being in the charity sector and working with volunteers.

Volunteering itself is growing steadily. "Five years ago, we had 5,000 volunteer hours," he says. "Ten years ago, we had none. Now we're targeting 50,000 hours."

The charity has had 30 community adoptions - promises from local groups to commit one day a month to looking after their local canal - and has recruited 370 volunteer lock-keepers. It has also recruited volunteers to provide education about canals in schools and to carry out maintenance work.

But he is ambitious to improve this further. He says charities such as the National Trust have shown that more can be done. "There will always be a beacon for us to aim for," he says.

Parry says support for the new charity can be shown in the early success of a campaign to attract voluntary income. After a year, the charity has 5,000 regular donors.

"Our approach is proving attractive, and we think we can grow dramatically," he says. "We've tried a lot of different things. We have our own space on the towpath and we've tried to recruit there.

"We've tried to do it in a less in-your-face way. It's not a man leaping out from behind a bridge with a clipboard and startling cyclists."

He is also hoping for a growth in grant funding. This year, he says, the charity has secured £10m of funding for cycling alone, and it hopes to receive almost £4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the Montgomery Canal, which runs through Wales and Shropshire.

"We're proving successful at getting grant funding from different sources because we've shown we're a competent organisation that gets things done," he says.

One remaining priority is to complete the takeover of some canals that remain under government control.

"There should have been phase two of our spin-out, which was transferring the remaining navigations under the control of the Environment Agency," he says. "That hasn't happened, and we're now told it isn't likely until after the election. We have to ensure that remains the policy of government."

He is pleased to see that English Heritage is following a similar path into the charity sector. "Its spinning-out is a vote of confidence in us,"

he says. "The chief executive of English Heritage is one of our trustees and has experienced the benefits first hand.

"We think it's a model that has enormous benefits. All the things that were set out as benefits before we became a charity have been delivered."

CV:

2013: Chief executive, Canal and River Trust
2012: Director, rail division, First Group
2011: Deputy managing director - London Underground, Transport for London
2009: Acting managing director - London Underground, TfL
2004: Director of strategy and service development - London Underground, TfL

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